Joris Minne: Gillies Bar & Grill
The Galgorm Resort is well known for its famed River Room, but is dining in the relaxed Gillies a consistently satisfying experience?
Galgorm Resort and Spa is Co Antrim’s catering answer to Disneyland. Except for the queues.
There are no queues. I spent 36 hours there last weekend and soon after arriving, felt I had entered a kind of parallel universe, a self contained world of enjoyment and comfort and big dinners.
I found one bar at first, then another, then another one outside beyond the stables. There were restaurants including the famed River Room and its fabulous views to the fast-flowing, sparkling waters of the River Main, the Gillies Bar & Grill and a third diner called Fratelli. There’s also a very James Bond, white leather-trimmed bar and dining room in the extension called the Four Seasons and I’ve eaten there in the past so, technically, that’s a fourth restaurant.
But the focus of today’s review is Gillies and not just one meal in the place either. Breakfast turned out to be alright so I thought I'd give lunch and dinner a go too. And another lunch the next day.
As the newest board member of the networking organisation Women in Business NI, I was deeply impressed to discover that an away day (at which a five-year plan of action would be hammered out and agreed by 12 of us) would in fact, last for two days and would be based in Camp Galgorm.
I turned up early, well before the 9am start, so I could get off to a good start with a decent fry. The Gillies restaurant is oddly attractive and so tall and high-ceilinged it feels like a gothic church. The odd bit comes from the fact that you enter it from a height and descend a steep flight of stairs into the bowels of the bare-brick and timber interior. If it was a gothic church, the entrance is where the roseate window would normally be, according to the norms of gothic church architecture.
Whatever. The interior is intimate. There is a warmth and comfort to the place and it’s very clean. And as soon as the server appears offering a seat anywhere at all and would I like tea or coffee and the buffet breakfast is served through here, (points to secret passage to the side of the staircase) it takes only a moment to load up the plate with mushrooms, black pudding, tomatoes, fried egg, bacon, sausage, soda and potato bread and brown sauce before sitting down again.
Just a bit tired from lying around for a few minutes too long, the fried eggs are slightly solid, the mushrooms are starting to dry and the bacon is suffering de
hydration beneath the heat lamps. Toast arrives with the tea and I notice cold cuts and cheeses available beside the yoghurts, fresh fruit and cereals tucked almost out of sight.
It’s fine. The black pudding is top class and there’s much to commend the big Ulster fry, but it’s steep at £14 for anyone walking in off the street in search of breakfast. For those staying overnight with a B&B tariff, this will not be a consideration.
Fortified and ready for the long day strategising with a group of very bright, able and mildly intimidating people I’m already thinking of dinner that night. But first, lunch. Twelve of us join up once again in the Gillies restaurant. I order smoked haddock on crushed new potatoes with leek sauce. It’s sound and enjoyable, honest and unpretentious. Others are having scampi and chips (the chips are hand cut, beautifully golden; some are small and crispy others large and flaccid — take your pick), seafood pie, salad and chowder. The overall reaction is positive. It’s not what Chris Bell might be cooking up the stairs in the River Room but it is decent quality. The price matches the offer.
A similar menu is given to us later that night from which I choose creole salmon. One of the 12 musketeers sitting opposite me has ordered a rack of ribs which has been lifted straight from the central props unit for the next Flintsones cartoon. This vast rack is daunting and I gallantly step in with offers of assistance. The ribs are flakingly tender, soft and porky with only the tooth-loosening sweetness of the BBQ sauce to spoil them.
The salmon, not a Caribbean staple, is well cooked and works happily with the creole spices for a dry, peppery, chilli-flavoured skin which is brittle and crisp like oven-dried crepe paper.
The tomato and red pepper ratatouille beneath does not work well with the salmon as it is too acidic and tart although the plain boiled rice does.
What is memorable is the accompanying bowls of champ and root vegetable mash which are outstanding, fresh-tasting and rich. The servers are impeccably friendly and efficient, keen to please and untiringly athletic as they fly up and down those stairs.
Gillies is a great spot for families. Young or teenage children will happily fit in with the busy, friendly buzzing mood. There is a distinct air of customer-comes-first attitude and when floor staff are this helpful, it’s a sign that the organisation is a happy one.(Breakfast, lunch and dinner)
Smoked haddock £13
Ribs (starter) £7
Galgorm Resort & Spa, 136 Fenaghy Rd, Ballymena BT42 1EA.
Tel: 028 25881001.